Saturday, June 7, 2008

Winter Commute

We're two weeks away from midwinter, when (in addition to the huge celebrations we'll be having) the sun hits it lowest point below the horizon. Midwinter is the darkest day of the year, and from that point on, it'll get lighter every day, with visible bands of sunlight starting on the horizon around mid-August.

For now, though, sunlight is a distant memory. It's pitch black outside (one person got lost on the 10 -foot square observation deck last week because they couldn't find the door to get back inside), but given time, your eyes still adjust enough to make out the gross details of the world. Buildings are black blobs against the slightly less black horizon. The ground is a uniform, featureless gray, and the flaglines a series of shapeless dark patches fluttering in the breeze.

Contrasting all that, the night sky is a marvel. Having your pupils dilated as wide as they'll go, and looking through some of the clearest skies on earth, you get an incredible display overhead. Our galaxy is the dominant feature, an imposing and irregular band across the sky. It rotates overhead, one full revolution per day, the enormous hour hand of a celestial clock.

Off to its side, the two Magellanic Clouds (small globular galaxies near ours) twinkle softly, while closer stars blaze brightly away, a million motes of light cast across the sky. And across it all, the constant showers of light from auroras, sometimes bright enough to illuminate the ground.

Barring bright auroral light, the path has become ever more treacherous. It's now nearly saturated with invisible drifts and dips, their shifting presence the bane of all polie wanderers. The days when we could take 5 consecutive steps without tripping are nothing but a fond memory now, and more than once my tripod/walking-stick has saved me from faceplanting into a snowpile that wasn't there the previous day.

The commute to DSL has changed considerably since the easy days of summer. The first couple of times you find yourself stumbling a kilometer through the snow, climbing over a never-seen hill of unknown height, or stopping to catch your breath for the fifth time in as many minutes - all in -120F windchills - it seems a titanic struggle for survival. Now, it's just the price of admission for the spectacular views, and one well worth paying.


desert tortise said...

Thanks for the information on your mid-winter. I'll share it with studnets as we gather the shadow measurements for solstice. I'll link your page as before in our IPY post.

Hallie said...

Your pictures are amazing, K!